Nearly twenty years ago I returned home from the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta adamant that was the end of my career as an elite athlete. Since the age of 13 I had been representing Great Britain in major international competitions in swimming and, at the age of 19, I was ready to put it all behind me. I was fortunate; I had achieved a lot in my six-year international swimming career, including a Paralympic gold medal, and I was looking forward to going to University and the future. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine my future would include returning to the Paralympic Games as an athlete, and yet this is what I will do, when I travel as a member of ParalympicsGB to compete in the inaugural Paralympic triathlon on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on 11th September.
Even when it was announced in December 2010 that paratriathlon would be included in the Paralympic Games from 2016, I’m not sure I really believed I would be there. In fact, I honestly didn’t think I would be there four weeks ago! When I told my parents that I had been selected they were thrilled and said they were more excited now than they were when I was selected in 1992 and 1996. The reason for that is pretty simple. It has been a battle to qualify for these Games. For the past four years I have had to fight and perform at my best just to get a start at major competitions because of limited country quotas imposed by the ITU and being in an incredibly competitive female category in Great Britain. Not being allowed to race at the World Championships in Chicago last September was a major kick in the teeth, even though I tried to put it in perspective and focus on this year. The problem was that points earned at World Championships are worth 75% more than in standard World Paratriathlon Event (WPE). 11th place at the World Championships scores more points than a win in a WPE! Consequently I was struggling to get my ranking high enough to prove I was a contender and worthy of a start in Rio, so that the ITU would consider exceeding the country quota of two per category and award me a bipartite invitation.
My win in Detroit last August gave me a good start and I followed that with a race in Penrith, Australia in April this year. Despite a solid and consistent block of winter training, I struggled during the race in the latter stages of the bike and run and was left disappointed with my performance despite winning the silver medal. Upon returning back to the UK we worked out that racing on a different bike this year was causing problems in my hips, leading to excessive tightness, which made running off the bike challenging. This gave me hope and a determination to work on these areas before the European Championships, which was effectively the selection race for the final Great Britain quota slot between Faye McClelland and myself. On the day, Faye raced to second place to my fourth and deservedly took the final Great Britain quota slot after Lauren Steadman was pre-selected in March.
This was probably the lowest point in the past four years. I initially thought I was 11th in the Paralympic rankings and, with only one race remaining in the Paralympic qualification period, I had no way of improving it. I needed to be in the top 10 to meet the British selection criteria to be put forward for a bipartite invitation. I had planned a mid-season break after Europeans and so I spent a week relaxing up North with my brother and visiting friends. When I returned to Loughborough I didn’t really know why I was there or what I wanted to do but I’m privileged to be on a UKSport funded programme, and so I returned to training. Two days later my teammate, Andy, told me I was in fact ranked 10th in the Paralympic rankings; there was still hope. It felt like a vague hope at times; there were so many uncertainties around whether the ITU would give me an invitation as a third athlete from Great Britain and whether being ranked 10th would be considered “a high ranking”. I found some motivation by competing in a couple of 1500m open water swim races, in which I finished third and fourth female, and my first standard distance race in four years in St Neots, which I actually won! This boosted my confidence in my fitness and race form and helped me to formulate a Plan B should I not make the team to Rio.
In many respects I actually started to really enjoy training again. The pressure had gone. Any decisions were completely out of my hands and I was back doing the sport I love purely because I wanted to; for myself. This doesn’t mean there weren’t some difficult times – having to go to kitting out and then attending the photo shoot for the team launch when I didn’t know if I would be selected were particularly difficult. Then spending the whole of 8th July on tenterhooks awaiting the phone call, which would determine how I would be spending my summer. Whilst I was told I had been awarded an invitation to race in Rio, this would still need to be confirmed by the British Paralympic Association before I was formally selected and then the team would be officially announced on 15th July. Until that point I was not allowed to say anything publicly about my selection. I was somewhat surprised when the ITU made a press release listing all the invitations awarded, followed by a lot of messages from so many people congratulating me. I was overwhelmed and fully appreciated every single message but I was unable to respond properly last week. I am so sorry if I came across as rude or ungrateful – that is so far from the truth; I simply had to follow instructions until the formal team announcement!
A very big, heartfelt, thank you to everyone who did message me last week and has supported me during the past four years as I worked towards this goal. I now have just over eight weeks to prepare for the biggest triathlon I will have competed in and the first to be held in the Paralympic Games; bring it on 😀